What even is Fascia?
I feel like this is a question on a lot of our minds. We hear it just about everywhere we go nowadays since it’s becoming more popular in movement and exercise circles. All because it’s changing the way we look at the human body.
But do you really know what it is? What it does? How it behaves?
I didn’t for a long time. At least not as well as I do now. It’s a fairly new concept and an understanding of the body that is slowly dribbling it’s way more mainstream. Which is good, because we should be learning about the largest sensory organ in our body and how it connects everything inside of us to hold us up against gravity to allow efficient movement.
What you’ll learn today:
- Fascia serves as the connective tissue scaffolding between cells and provides support and stability to joints and muscle tissue.
- Fascia connects muscles in chains, making full body movement possible
- Fascia carries much of the water in our bodies, which allows muscles to glide to move against each other
- Fascia is full of nerve fibers. It’s in charge of our sense of Interoception.
That’s just the surface too. Fascia is freakin’ dope, a conclusion I hope you’ll come to as well by the end of this article.
Here’s the agenda:
- Fascia Facts: What even is fascia?
- Fascial Functions: What does fascia do?
- Fascial Feeling: Fascia & The Nervous System
More like fascia-nating 😉
Here we answer the question:
What even is fascia?
Simply put, fascia is connective tissue. It’s in the space between the cells, connecting cells together. Think of it like a spider web, or tiny scaffolding.
The orangy stuff is muscle tissue, the white spider web stuff is the fascia.
Your muscles are made up of many fibers, all encased in layer after layer of fascia.
See it wraps around multiple bundles of fibers kind of like a sausage casing (obviously a tofu vegan one) [image provided by BandhaYoga]
What’s really cool is that in a living body, fascia and the muscle are all intertwined. In fact, unless you dissect a body and cut each part out, you can’t really tell what’s fascia and what’s an individual muscle. They become each other.
Ligaments and tendons are fascia as well. Cells gain more structural proteins, like collagen, closer to the bone which creates ligaments and tendons. They then connect and become bone, which is now theorized to be hardened fascia (via increased calcium and other mineral deposits in their cells).
Bone is living tissue after all, and it’s how most of our structure (shape of our body) is composed. Bone has the near tensile strength of steel. Your femur, aka your biggest gravity defying bone, is as strong as concrete. (Do not look up YouTube videos of femur fractures, that is not a pretty sound or sight)
Like bone, fascia helps provide structure because it helps maintain our soft tissue form.
This model is called Tensegrity:
Tensegrity refers to the forces of tension (provided by muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia) pulling on structure (bones and joints) that help keep the body both stable and efficient in mass and movement.
In short, fascia is connective tissue, think of it as webbing, or scaffolding between cells that links them together. It helps to hold our body in a state of tension, so that we have form and move efficiently.
It behaves like a rubber band. When you stretch it one way, it will rebound back to it’s original form via elasticity.
It also forms all of our soft tissue structures: muscles become tendons which become bones which become ligaments which become other bones which become muscles, etc.
Fascia makes up all your bones and muscles!
And yes, you are more like a rubber band than you think you are.
Fascia does a LOT of things in your body. First and foremost, it interlinks muscles in chains for whole body movement. Your brain doesn’t just fire your bicep whenever you flex your arm, it pulls on that whole line of muscles, the antagonist tricep muscle chain on the other side, and all the muscles around it.
Here’s a few muscle chains:
This, by the way, is just a small example of just how connected everything is.
The important thing to take home from this, is that all muscles are connected. The brain doesn’t ever isolate just one muscle for any particular movement, it usually recruits the whole area around it.
In terms of tissue pathology this is an important concept to grasp:
- Your brain will contract fascia when it feels the body is unstable.
- The contraction of the muscle shortens the muscle fibers and fascia provides extra scaffolding so that the joint is more stable.
- After a long period of time of fascial shortening, the joint then becomes restricted to limit motion and provide further stability.
This is how your fascia behaves and explains how muscles develop knots and how joints become restricted.
Also that feeling of “tightness” that you feel, that’s actually a feeling of overstretched fascia. Think about it, if you stretch a rubber band to its ends, in its elongated state you would say that it is really tight. Same thing applies to fascia, tightness doesn’t necessarily mean shortened, often times it actually means overstretched.
Yup tightness is merely the perception of overstretching. Read that Jules Mitchell article I linked above, she does an excellent job explaining it. It’s a mind shattering concept that took me about 2-3 reads to fully grasp.
Fascia & Fluid
Alright, so we know that fascia controls a lot of our movement, but how does it move?
It’s simple, remember that picture above of the muscle tissues and how each layer of it had a casing of fascia around it?
That’s because fascia allows muscles to glide and slide on other muscles.
That’s how muscle techniques like pin and stretch, ART, Graston, FAKTR, etc work. They pin the top layer of fascia on the inner layers of fascia, then move the muscle so that the layers glide together. This helps to remove some of the scaffolding of fascia and free up movement if it is restricted.
This is beneficial in cases of overstabilization. Recall from above that the brain restricts movement when it doesn’t feel safe. Over an extended period of time of not moving fascial scaffolding essentially becomes overgrown. Friction between the layers of fascia helps remove this and restore motion via promoting muscle glide.
Fluid is also HUGE when it comes to fascial glide. A lot of your body’s water content is located in your fascia. If you’re dehydrated your muscles lose their ability to slide and become more restricted.
You know what dehydrated muscle tissue looks like by the way…
Greasy and delicious 😉
So fascia is HUGE for movement, and it’s important to keep it hydrated. Those concepts are pretty cool, but by far the coolest thing about it is how many nerves it has, and what it does for the inside of the body.
Fascia is full of nerves. It’s in large part our biggest sensory organ since it is everywhere and is constantly telling us via the process of interoception and proprioception where we are, what is being stretched, the conditions of our organs, etc.
- It can has free nerve endings that can transmit the sensations of pain.
- It tells your body via proprioceptors where it is positioned to help orient it.
- Interoception and Proprioception are linked to chronic pain, emotions, psychological conditions, etc
It even encases our organs like this kidney.
Fascia is everything.
- It connects and becomes muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons.
- It behaves like scaffolding and can help provide stability through restricting muscles (good thing in the short term, bad thing in the long term)
- It also behaves like a rubber band, or spring, in a constant state of tension capable of rebounding back to it’s original form.
- It slings together muscles for gliding movement.
- It holds a lot of our water
- It’s full of nerves that sense our internal body
And now you know! Fascia is dope, and I hope by now you understand how interconnected our bodies are. All through the connective tissue that is fascia.
I’ve written about a few of the different chains in previous articles:
- You can get to know your butt and how the thoracolumbar fascia of your back transmits forces
- You can also see how the anterior and posterior oblique slings work in my yoga twisting series.
- You can engage with the pinky fingers and their connection to your lats via the arm lines here.
And there’s more to come in the future. For now, enjoy your new fascial knowledge. Maybe even reread some of my previous articles with your new understanding of human body connectivity 😉
- Avison, J. (2015). Yoga: Fascia, anatomy and movement. Edinburgh: Handspring Publishing.
- Clark, B. (2016). Your Body, Your Yoga Wild Strawberry Productions.